Why is the sky blue? Why does snow melt? Why do people die? Why is that man sleeping on the street? Why can’t I have ice cream? Why do I have to go to bed?

Young children are full of questions like these. They’ve learned from us that people ask why. As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would say, they’ve learned to play a language game (a “form of life” or activity that human beings engage in), and through playing this particular language game over and over and over, they come to see and experience things and events causally and to expect that everything they encounter in the world is either the cause or the effect of something else.

At first, parents delight in the “wondering whys” (“Why is the sky blue?”), proud of their child’s intelligence and curiosity. Sooner or later, though, most parents will tire of their children’s barrage of questions (many or most of which they have no clue how to answer). And then there are the “whiney whys” (”Why can’t I…?”) which adults like even less. That’s a different language game—whose next move is often one of the parental standbys, “Because," or, "Because I said so.”  

Once we’re adults, “Why?” stays with us.

Causality is one of the ways we know—to know something has come to mean to know its causes and its effects. Causality, reality, and others are among the 12 categories of thought identified by 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant to correspond to forms of understanding that are the foundations of our conceptual knowledge. These categorical ways of thinking are a priori, meaning they are independent of experience—they’re the innate structures of the human mind. It’s these categories, the story goes, that then shape our experiences. The short version, in the vernacular of our day, is, "We’re programmed that way.”

Traditional psychotherapy depends on causality. The working assumption is that identifying what is causing depression or anger or whatever—the cause usually being something in one’s childhoodchanges it, clears things up, and even makes a person better. I’ve long believed that the assumption of a causal relationship between past events and current emotions needs to be carefully examined—after all, it’s the very foundation of a profession (and the industry it feeds) dedicated to helping people who are experiencing emotional distress.

There are at least two downsides to causality remaining unexamined:

  1. Ignoring the topic keeps valuable information away from both consumers and professionals. If conversations about mental health don’t address the assumption of cause and why we should try to uncover it, then it’s unlikely that the “helpers” and the “helped” will have opportunities to learn about the many available non-causal treatment options. None of us should be limited that way.
  2. We lose the chance to look at ourselves and our own assumptions. Examining our assumptions is an important, often eye-opening and transformative experience. In the case of causality, when we do look, we see how obsessed we are with cause in everyday life. Do you know people who truly believe that every single thing and event has some other thing or event that caused it to be, and who won’t rest until they believe they’ve pinpointed it? I do. Are you sometimes even more concerned with the cause of something—say, why a friend seemed to ignore you, or why you got angry at the cashier at the supermarket—than with ways to move on with your relationships and your life? Or maybe you think you can’t take a course of action until you know why it happened in the first place.

I’m among quite a few psychologists who believe that, far from being the solution, trying to find the cause of feeling a certain way only exacerbates feeling that way—and that we need to loosen the hold causality has on us. Applying causality to the psychological realm, and insisting that all of human thought and action is best understood in terms of cause and effect, is misguided.

While mainstream therapy (of both the talk and drug variety) reinforces a causal view of the world, to those of us who practice non-causal approaches it is clear that much of people’s emotional pain comes from thinking causally—and we’re finding more and more evidence that challenging this way of thinking can be extremely helpful to people. 

Here is a classic, hypothetical example:

  • Client: I stayed in bed all day because I was depressed.
  • Therapist: How do you know that? Maybe you were depressed because you stayed in bed all day. Or maybe one thing has nothing to do with the other.

By suggesting other ways of looking at the situation, the therapist opens the possibility for a new kind of therapeutic conversation—more a creative journey they will take together than a telling of information so the therapist can come up with the correct cause-effect explanation.

You can read more in Chapter 4, “The What and How of Knowing,” from The Overweight Brain: How Our Obsession with Knowing Keeps Us from Getting Smart Enough to Make a Better World. And to learn more about the problems with thinking and speaking causally, and to find out about therapeutic approaches that don’t, see Philosophical Investigations: A Clinician’s Guide to Social Therapy, a book I co-edited with Dr. Rafael Mendez, and Let’s Develop! A Guide to Continuous Personal Growth by Dr. Fred Newman.

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